Grannies and Greeks

We’re a bit delayed with this last post, due to the … unpleasantness. But, better late than never!

Although technically our flight home was on Monday, it was very early in the morning, so Sunday was our last real day in Italy. We knew we had to be in Rome around 10pm to return the rental car, but the rest of the day was up for grabs.

Atrani has a couple different bars, which we’d been working our way through the previous mornings. The first bar we visited had excellent pastries, but a barista who wasn’t too interested in chatting. The second bar had so-so pastries, but a very friendly barista who told us all about town. For our last morning in Atrani, we did the obvious thing: went to both of them. Fully caffeinated and pastryified, we cleaned up our apartment and said goodbye. We put our bags in the rental, and then set out for a hike.

Our destination was Ravello, a hilltop town about 1000 feet above Atrani. Ravello has long been a destination for artists and musicians, and is a popular tourist stop. Kat had been there with her sister Caroline on their previous visit, and we wanted to return.

The hike involved a steady climb out of Atrani on a very nice path. We got to watch the goings-on of the valley – some men coaxing a three wheeled Piaggio Ape up a very steep incline, people tending to their gardens and checking their lemon trees, and sheep and horses clinging to very steep hillsides.

We made it to Ravello right as church was letting out, and the town was congregating in the main piazza. We had a coffee and a zeppole with the rest of the crowd. Fun fact, which we learned later in the day: zeppole are specifically made for St. Joseph’s Day, which is March 19th.

Our true goal in Ravello was to find the restaurant Kat ate at on her last visit. She had a vague memory of the interior, but no real sense of where it was in town. We wandered for a while, before turning to technology to study interior photos on tripadvisor. That helped us narrow it down, and when we finally poked a head in, Kat instantly knew we were at the right place. It’s a small restaurant run by a grandmother, her son, and a variety of other family members. We arrived right as some members of the extended family were arriving for their Sunday lunch. Because if grandma runs a restaurant, you go to grandma’s restaurant for lunch instead of grandma’s house.

We were handed some menus (handwritten of course) but then granny came out to say “If you’d like, I can just make you some plates of the things I made today for us.” So uhh, yeah. We did that. She brought us some prosciutto and homemade bread, and then some lasagna, cannelloni, and some other delicious-but-unknown item. When we’d cleaned our plates, she was concerned and asked if she could get us seconds. Completely stuffed, we didn’t have room for dessert, but she made us eat another zeppole anyways. In short, this was a pretty awesome meal.

Waddling out, we made our way down the hill and back to Atrani. With so-so weather, and a number of hours to kill, we decided to hop in the car for an excursion before heading back to Rome. Our destination was Paestum, a Roman/Greek city on the coast.

Paestum was founded by the Greeks about 2500 years ago, and then taken over by the Romans a few hundred years later. The Romans left the Greek temples and tombs untouched. It’s a really large site, in amazing condition. Visitors are free to just wander. For the locals, it’s a place to come for a picnic and a gelato, and to relax on a sunny Sunday. It’s basically the way the we treat Fort Snelling, except instead of a 1970s recreation of an 1820s fort, it’s a complete 2500 year old city.

Because it was a Sunday (we presume) there were also historical reenactors on site. We watched a gladiator battle, and then got to walk through the forum and visit the different shops. A nice Italian teenager helped translate for us, so that we could learn about the Roman medical instruments and games.

With one final gelato under our bulging belts, we hopped in the car and headed back to Rome, for a near-perfect* end to a completely wonderful trip.


Like unbelievable. But with Napoli in the middle. Get it? ‘Cause today we went to Napoli? Get it?

Today we went to Napoli! The city gets a bad rap, but it was hard to see anything negative about it – it’s got just the right amount of chaos and grit to make it lovable.

Our primary reason for going to Naples was to see all of the stuff that was removed from Pompeii by various Kings and nobility. Everything from the mosaics and frescoes, to the random household goods recovered during the excavation can now be found in the National Archaeological Museum.

We parked our car in the outskirts of town, and then walked to the museum. En route, we picked up a couple locally-famous pastries – a Zeppole and a “biscotti” (more of a brownie). We also stumbled on a big street market, so we diverted to explore that a bit more. While we chose not to load up our pockets with snails, we were in love with the huge amount of items on offer, from clams and squid to iPhone cases and jean jackets. One stop shopping.

We finally made it to the museum around 11, and followed the Rick Steves tour. While it’s a shame that the Pompeii artifacts can’t be seen in situ, it’s fantastic to be able to get your face right up against them. Kat was blown away by the intricacy of the mosaics, with their impossibly tiny tiles. Standing face-to-face with life-size bronze statues with inlaid eyes is a bit chilling. And the “Secret Cabinet” (the room of sexy stuff) was full of things that you can’t show on TV (but which, apparently, doesn’t disqualify one from being president).

By the time we were finished with the tour, we were pretty hungry. Given that this was our only meal in Naples, pizza was in order. We walked a few blocks to Starita, which came highly recommended (by the internet). We weren’t disappointed – we had an artichoke pizza (artichoke cream and whole pieces) and a margherita with prosciutto and fungi. The dough was just amazing – so chewy and full of flavor at the edges, impossibly thin in the middle. We devoured our pizzas in the blink of an eye.

Feeling contended (and a bit round), some walking was in order. We followed the Rick Steves walking tour of Naples, which bounces through the main shopping district, the Spanish quarter, the harbor front, and the oldest streets in town. Naples has one of the most intact Roman street plans of city in Europe, which means lots of delightful, winding, tiny lanes. It was a gorgeous Saturday, so the whole city was out shopping, running errands, and showing off.

Along the walk, we were entertained by copious amounts of street art. While plenty of it is just tags, there are some really great pieces mixed in. We even found the work of one of our favorite street artists we discovered in Florence, Exit Enter.

At one point, walking down Spaccanapoli, we saw a sign advertising metalwork. We followed the sign, and came upon a jewelry studio with the artist working inside. Kat found a volcano ring that she couldn’t resist. The artist was thrilled to meet us, and was very impressed that we decided to come to Naples on such a short trip.

We made the necessary stops for a hot sfogliatella, some gelato, and numerous coffees. As the afternoon drew to a close, we returned to the car for the trip to Atrani. While we knew Naples would be fun, we were surprised by just how much we liked it. It’s a city we’d like to spend a lot more time in.

Our drive home included some gorgeous views of a cloud-ringed Vesuvius. We hit the southern side of the mountains as the sun was setting, and found ourselves encased in a cloud of our own. It was spooky and a little treacherous. We made it home safe and sound though. For dinner, we popped over to Amalfi and wandered up a back alley for some delightful pasta and anchovies at a tiny restaurant.

Tomorrow is our last day in Italy, and ends with us in Rome. What happens in between is yet to be determined – we’ll see where the day takes us!

Pompeii and Circumstances

We seem to have found ourselves in Italy. An absurdly cheap airfare deal got us to Rome. From there, a google search result for “cutest villages on the Amalfi coast” got us to Atrani, admittedly a very cute village indeed. We’re staying in a rather over-specced Airbnb, which is spread over multiple levels, including three different rooftop terraces. One imagines that in the high season, this place is pretty spendy. Fortunately, it’s the off-season, and everything is absurdly cheap.

We arrived in Atrani Thursday afternoon, and spent the afternoon and evening wandering around the beachfront, fighting jetlag. Atrani is a short walk from Amalfi Town, which is larger and more feature-rich. En route to finding overnight parking, we discovered the large impressive modern pedestrian tunnel that connects the towns. We wandered over to Amalfi and poked around the town.

We walked “up” (away from the sea) until we came upon the Museo della Carta (the paper museum). The paper museum is on the site of the (claimed) oldest paper mill in Europe, which was founded in the 13th century. It’s entirely underground, and powered by water running down the valley. Our tour guide (we were the only visitors) showed us how the original paper-making process worked, using knives that pounded and smashed cloth to make a pulp. Kat made some paper out of recycled cotton fibers. We also saw later paper-making technologies, imported from elsewhere in Europe. Amazingly, this mill was in operation through the 1960s. We were surprised by how much of the centuries-old equipment still runs.

We kept wandering up the valley, and eventually ran out of town. A set of stairs kept going up though, so we followed. In town, you can hear water running below the street. Leaving town, you can see the stream running above ground. Further up the valley, we came upon the ruins of an old paper mill, which straddled the stream to drive the machinery. The ruins were ghostly and scenic but eventually, the path became impassable, so we turned around.

We made our way back to Atrani via the original set of tunneled staircases, and stopped into a small restaurant for some local fish and pasta. By this point, we were both quite loopy, having been up for roughly 40 hours. We wanted to stay for a more extensive meal, but we were barely staying awake, so we cut dinner short and plopped into bed.

Friday morning, well rested, we woke up ready to seize the day. A few espressos and pastries, some fruit from the fruit and vegetable truck, and then it was into the car for the drive to Pompeii. Any trip in or out of Atrani involves an hour long (but only ~15km) drive through the mountains, consisting of constant switchbacks on very narrow roads. Perfect roads for an Alfa Romeo, but also pretty intense. In the morning light the landslide deposits and lemon tree terraces were much more visible than they had been the day before.

At Pompeii, we basically had the place to ourselves. Another benefit of low-season travel. We followed the tour from our Rick Steves book, poking into houses and wandering the empty streets. Kat had visited a few years ago with the family in the high heat of the summer. Today it was sunny and cool – absolutely perfect.

A highlight of the visit was the opening of the House of Vettii. This home contains some of the best preserved frescoes in Pompeii. Yet again, we had the place to ourselves and the art was stunning. Kat was equally intrigued by the building materials of the walls. A mix of volcanic rocks and ‘limestone’ which appear to include fossilized marsh reeds. Colin admired the lead pipe plumbing and the intricate architecture of the bath systems around the city.

We took advantage of the on-site cafeteria for a morning coffee and again for a quick lunch. There were a few tour groups wandering around – some older Germans, some young Italians, and a couple Chinese groups. But just to reiterate: a 60 degree spring day appears to be about the best possible case for visiting Pompeii.

After leaving Pompeii, we drove to Vesuvius. Our guidebook claimed we could drive to a parking lot near the top, and then walk from there. Reality was a bit different – the parking was a further 1 or 1.5km down the mountain, so we had quite a climb. The tour busses can drive up, but folks in cars can’t. The payoff was reaching the top though, and getting to see into the crater. Thankfully lava tubes and other interesting formations dot the mountainside along the climb up. It doesn’t hurt to grab a walking ice cream either.

The steep walls of the crater of the volcano allow you to peer through time into the long history of volcanism at Vesuvius. The only remnants of the 79 AD eruption that buried Pompeii is some light dusting on the north rim across from the pedestrian path. Most of the remaining structure that survived the famous eruption consists of much older deposits. Geologic monitoring stations dot the crater rim and are clustered around the active fumaroles on the south slope.

The journey down Vesuvius was much quicker than the journey up. We were not tempted to stop at the lines of stands selling fake ‘lava’ rocks. We tried our best to make it to Herculaneum after Vesuvius, but we were too late – even though the site is open until 5, they don’t allow new visitors in after 3:30. Bummer. We drove back to Atrani, chasing an enthusiastic Lancia Delta up the mountain. A highlight of the drive was rounding a corner to discover a herd of goats, with their corgi sheep dog and shepards. We let them pass, then continued on our way. Dinner was another local restaurant – just a few tables, and one very friendly waiter.

Tomorrow: Napoli!